Since the completion of the winery in 2007, a trip to the northern end of Napa Valley is not complete without a tour of the Tuscan medieval-inspired Castello di Amorosa castle.
With three trips to Napa already behind me, it was time to tour some of the winery and castle’s 107 rooms, caves, ramparts, battlements, apartments, prison and dungeon. Besides, I heard owner Dario Sattui’s small lot wines and winemakers have scored well in competitions and U.S. News & Travel writes that visiting Castello is the “No. 4 out of 9 Best Things To Do” while in the Napa Valley.
After a lunch visit with owner Mark Young of Calistoga’s Brannan’s Grill (an upcoming post), Geena and I hooked up with long-time local resident, Peter Stetson, and made our way to Castello di Amorosa down Highway 29 to visit the time-warped 13th century castle.
While I was unable to meet owner Dario Sattui, the fourth-generation winemaker’s imprint is everywhere. After nearly a 30-year labor of love, including 15 years of research and 14 years of building his old world castle (VIDEO by ThumbsUpWine), the guided tour of the winery, castle and wines still amaze me two weeks later.
The inspiration behind the 121,000 square foot castle and three acres of rooms resulted from Dario’s fascination with Italian medieval architecture. It began with a passion for Italian ancient properties and grew to an obsession.
The Castello di Amorosa is not just the Disneyland of wineries.
While I foolishly avoided the castle on previous trips, too many outstanding reviews piqued my interest on Castello di Amorosa’s accomplishments since opening. While the $40 million castle on 171 acres, 30 of which are grapes, is all Dario’s vision, the V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena was his first responsibility as he has rebuilt its reputation after his great-grandfather, Vittorio Sattui, one of California’s first vintners, let it fall into disrepair during Prohibition.
However, as a child, Dario would play among the barrels and tanks in the underground cellars while dreaming of reviving V. Sattui Winery when he grew up. Following college graduation, Dario traveled around Europe for two years in an old VW van. It was during this period his fascination for medieval architecture began to take shape.
Living out of his van, he would visit medieval castles, monasteries, palaces, farmhouses and wineries studying their designs, taking photographs and completing detailed sketches and renderings. And after he rebuilt the V. Sattui Winery, its very success became the impetus for Dario to further expand his dream to create a medieval castle and winery.
After driving up the cyprus-lined drive, Peter escorted us up the grand stone-chiseled stairwell into the castle. The inside main Courtyard was just as impressive, maybe even more, than the outside. The estate has a wooded forest behind the castle and vineyards in the front.
I marveled, smiled and had to think back on my many trips to European castles. I loved how Dario placed his Tuscan-inspired vision on a hill overlooking the Napa Valley. The castle’s “ruined” tower (5 defensive towers in all), high ramparts, courtyards, well, functioning church, stables, vaulted and arched wine cellars ushered me back in time.
After numerous trips to Italy and specifically Tuscany, Dario knew his Napa Valley dream needed skilled old world men and women to create an authentic context for his wine. He hired Italian artisans who crafted all the leaded glass windows by hand and hand-carved all the ceiling beams. In fact, Italian artists made all lamps, iron gates and decorative iron pieces by hand over an open forge. He hired craftsman from Denmark, Austria and France as well. Each room was hand built and original. No room is the same, including the gorgeous antique brick cellars.
The drawbridge spanning the moat and the gargoyles perched atop the entrance column earn the respect of the visitor. The hand-painted Italian-style frescos and maze of underground rooms, including the 12,000-square-foot Grand Barrel Room, create a sense of awe and appreciation for the varied building styles of a castle created to emulate centuries of building techniques.
As we toured, I saw an authentic stone fireplace from the 14th century, ancient wine press, a wrought iron dragon from the times of Napoleon and an Iron Maiden from the late Renaissance, which dominates the torture chamber. The dry moat, chicken, ducks and sheep and goats farm all add to a wonderful experience.
As the tour guide walked us though the eight levels of rooms, my wife kept telling me to hurry up; I kept getting left behind. At one point I was annoyed. I wanted to wander amongst the 107 rooms at my leisure taking in each niche and nuance. I was definitely transported back to the Italian castles I visited a few years earlier. I didn’t want to reenter the 21st century.
Dario either brought over the building materials from Europe or instructed the craftsmen to create the building out of local materials as old world counterparts did centuries ago. I loved the Great Hall’s 500 year-old fireplace. It is flanked by hand-painted Italian frescoes which took two artists nearly a year and a half to complete.
The 22-foot high coffered ceiling rivals many of the great ceilings in Tuscany. Celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger, former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani Jon Bon Jovi, Joe Montana, Clint Black, Gordon Getty, Jr., Robert Redford, and others have been hosted in the Great Hall.
Near the end of the hour tour, we ended up in the 12,000 square foot Grand Barrel Room with its 40 ribbed, Roman cross-vaults containing hundreds of wine barrels and a 40-foot, hand crafted travertine tasting bar. We also viewed other small lot cellars containing wine bottles and large formats from the original V. Salluti collection.
I chose not to spend time in the gift shop or La Fattoria (Italian Farm Store) for olive oil, teas, flour, etc., so we headed up to the Il Passito Club Room to continue our Wine Aficionado Tour.
Just outside of the Il Passito Room is the hidden gem of the Castle. The Il Passito patio secluded terrace has views of our hilltop watchtower as well as our crushpad below. It is also only a few steps from Castello’s Lake Mario. Open to the hillside, but unknown to most patrons of the castle, it boasts some of the best sunset views in the Diamond Mountain region.
The three of us finally settled into the Il Passito Room to relax and wine taste perched high above the Courtyard. We were a world away not only from Napa but from the crowds and bustle of Castello’s daily grind. The Il Passito Room normally functions as the Wine Club Member’s room.
However, the millions of dollars spent on the castle and grounds has not prevented Dario from establishing a world class array of wines.
While his vision created Castello di Amorosa, Dario has a team of winemakers and staff to ensure his mostly Tuscan-influenced Italian-style and growing Bordeaux red wine programs continues to produce world-class results. Sebastiano Rosa of Bolgheri, Italy, winemaker at Tenuta San Guido – producer of Sassicaia- one of Italy’s leading Bordeaux-style red wines joined the San Francisco International Wine Competition’s 2012 Winemaker of the Year, Brooks Painter, Peter Velleno and Laura Orozco in March 2012 to form a strong group under the Castello label.
Our host, John, was superb in his knowledge of Castello di Amorosa’s wines and was willing to chat about background, vineyards, soils and technique. I began the tasting with a 2012 California Vermentino. It was so refreshing on a warm Napa afternoon. The traditional Mediterranean white grape is grown in Northern Italy and Southern France. It was very aromatic with plenty of citrus (I’m a grapefruit fan) and a subtle minerality to finish. I loved it! At home I paired a bottle of Vermentino with grilled, chilled salmon salad (dill, capers, celery, onions, raspberry vinegar, red onion).
For more on my Castello di Amorosa wine tasting experience, return to TalesoftheCork for my July 4 post: Tuscan tasting: Castello di Amorosa 2012 Rosato. Castello di Amorosa wines are only available at the castle or by mail order. They are not available in restaurants. To order Castello wine, visit their web site at CastellodiAmorosa.com or call 1.707.942.8200.
Castle and wine tasting tours
General admission ranges from $18-$43 per person depending on the level of wine and/or castle interest. No reservations necessary for groups under 12 for general admission. However a guided tour through the castle and winery followed by a tasting of five premium wines in one of the castle’s private tasting bars requires reservations.
For more videos on Castello di Amorosa, visit their Video Gallery.
Castello di Amorosa is open seven days a week from 9:30 a.m.- 6 p.m., March-October and 9:30 a.m.- 5 p.m., November-February. The castle/winery is located 5 1/2 miles north of St. Helena and 2 miles south of Calistoga at 4045 N. St. Helena Highway, Calistoga, CA 94515. Phone numbers: Office (707) 967-6278; Reservations: (707) 967-6272.
For another view on Dario Sattui and Castello di Amorosa, read the Sacramento Bee’s article, Sattui’s castle awaits Napa Valley visitors .
If you missed my first post on my Calistoga visit, read Tuscany trip takes Calistoga detour: First stop Fanny’s B&B.